Heart of Darkness

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Themes and Colors
Colonialism Theme Icon
The Hollowness of Civilization Theme Icon
The Lack of Truth Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
Racism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Heart of Darkness, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Work Theme Icon

In a world where truth is unknowable and men's hearts are filled with either greed or a primitive darkness that threatens to overwhelm them, Marlow seems to find comfort only in work. Marlow notes that he escaped the jungle's influence not because he had principles or high ideals, but because he had a job to do that kept him busy.

Work is perhaps the only thing in Heart of Darkness that Marlow views in an entirely positive light. In fact, more than once Marlow will refer to work or items that are associated with work (like rivets) as "real," while the rest of the jungle and the men in it are "unreal." Work is like a religion to him, a source of support to which he can cling in order to keep his humanity. This explains why he is so horrified when he sees laziness, poor work, or machines left out to rust. When other men cease to do honest work, Marlow knows they have sunk either into the heart of darkness or the hollow greed of civilization.

Work ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Work appears in each section of Heart of Darkness. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Work Quotes in Heart of Darkness

Below you will find the important quotes in Heart of Darkness related to the theme of Work.
Part 1 Quotes
When one has got to make correct entries, one comes to hate those savages—hate them to the death.
Related Characters: Chief Accountant (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

The Chief Accountant reflects on the role of order to Marlow during one of their conversations at the Outer Station. As a representative of European efficiency, the Chief Accountant is deeply frustrated with the Congolese who interrupt his numerical mind. He is provoked to frustration first by a dying local housed in his room and second by a caravan of locals who arrive at the camp and make a great deal of noise.

Marlow's perspective on the Accountant is ambivalent. On the one hand, he values the physical order and logical approach the Accountant maintains in a tropical environment that moves many Europeans to irrationality and despair. The “correct entries” of his accounting represent this steadfastness. Yet the obsession with that correctness also makes the accountant greedy and callous toward others—in particular the locals. Their supposed distractions cause him to call them “savages” and then to use a revealing expression “hate them to the death.” Conrad has notably added in an extra article “the” to slightly disrupt the saying "hate them to death"—perhaps to draw our attention how the European hatred for the locals actually results in literal deaths. There is a deep horror beneath the order of the accountant to which Marlow has begun to be attuned.

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Part 2 Quotes
It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: "Exterminate all the brutes!"
Related Characters: Marlow (speaker), Kurtz (speaker)
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Marlow sees this horrifying statement at the end of Kurtz’s treatise “On the Suppression of Savage Customs.” Kurtz, he goes on to explain, had been commissioned to write the report by an International Society of the same name. The majority of the text features grandiose statements on the need for Europeans to civilize natives, but the end radically shifts tone and calls for violent extermination.

The piece of writing shows Kurtz at both his most idealistic and his most brutal. Its simplicity and its attention to “altruistic sentiment” mark it as a prophetic text that could significantly alter colonial attitudes back in Europe. Perhaps the treatise would cause Londoners to adopt less brutal and more benevolent practices in the Congo. Yet after seventeen pages of that “serene sky,” the scrawled postscript demands complete annihilation. The shift implies that Kurtz has lost his noble sentiments—perhaps due to mental illness, perhaps due to an epiphany reached in the Congo—and now has been consumed fully by hate and avarice.

That Marlow observes this change in a piece of writing is revealing, particularly considering his own role as a storyteller. Marlow is attentive to the way language functions as a mask that obscures rather than reveals reality. Though Marlow is at first enraptured by Kurtz’s words—as he has been by the ideal of Kurtz to offer something less hollow than other Europeans—he comes to realize that the treatise is yet another linguistic mask.